Born in Richmond, Virginia, Robert Gwathmey became an artist known for his Social Realist depictions of life in the rural South. He was one of the first white artists to create dignified images of African-American people and did so in a style that was modernist with many geometric forms and bold colororation.
He spent most of his forty-five year career in New York City, but frequently returned to the South where he became concerned about the problems dividing blacks and whites.
His family were "old Virginia," and he was raised in an environment where segregation was espoused. He moved north to study art, going first to the Maryland Institute of Art for a year and in 1930 earned a degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. To earn money in Philadelphia, he worked in a settlement house and became much aware of tensions between people with diverse cultures. He was active politically to get money for federal support of projects to help needy individuals.
He married Rosalie Hook of Charlotte, North Carolina, an artist and photographer who did a documentary series on blacks in the South. These images became a source of inspiration for her husband's paintings.
Gwathmey traveled in Europe for two years and then taught at Carnegie Institute of Technology and for twenty-six years at Cooper Union. In 1944, he received a Rosenwald Fellowship and lived and worked on a tobacco farm, another experience that motivated him to turn to rural south themes in his art. In 1973, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters and in 1976, to the National Academy of Design.